VRguy podcast Episode 3: Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix, on AR/VR in the Enterprise and Consumer Markets

This episode features Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix. Interview transcript appears below the media player. This episode was recorded on Feb 18, 2016

Paul and I discuss the evolution of AR and VR headsets in both the enterprise and consumer worlds. In thijs comprehensive discussion, we talk about optical technologies and what it would take to achieve mass AR adoption, about whether wider field of view is always better and many other topics.

Paul Travers is the Founder of Vuzix Corporation and has been its President and Chief Executive Officer since 1997. Mr. Travers is responsible for setting the direction of Vuzix. He founded both e-Tek and Forte Technologies Inc. and has been a driving force behind the development of cutting edge display products. He has more than 17 years experience in the electronics field, he is a nationally recognized expert in the industry. He holds an Associate Degree in Engineering Science from Canton, ATC and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Clarkson University.

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Interview transcript

Yuval (VRguy): Hello everyone and welcome to the show. Today, I have with me Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix. Paul, would you please tell us who you are and what does your company does?

Paul Travers:  Sure, Yuval. Hi everybody, this is Paul Travers. I’m the President of Vuzix Corporation. We have been in the wearable display industry for probably longer that most any company out there today. I think right behind us in Yuval’s company. I have been in the wearable display business since all the way back in 1993. My company, called Forte Technologies at the time, was the first company to produce a virtual reality head managed display system for gaming purposes.

In our first quarter we shipped $5 million worth of products. There probably wasn’t as much of an amazing feeling about virtual reality as there is today, but these were back in the days of Jaron Lanier, and VR was going to change the world. I believed in that since then, various reasons the technology in the world, the capabilities in the PC’s. At the time, everything was just a little early in the game, but it was still an exciting time to be there.

In ’97 I bought that company back from some of the shareholders we had at the time and started Vuzix, and since then Vuzix has had a focus in the enterprise space in the different space et cetera, working in vertical markets to create wearable display technology that is anywhere from virtual reality to just personal display system that plugged in to computers for different markets et cetera. Vuzix today has a long history of being in the wearable display markets.

Yuval: You mentioned that you’re active both in the enterprise space as well as the consumer space which is quite unique. I don’t know that a lot of companies are able to do both. How do you manage it? In what fields do you see successes in both these markets?

Paul: Good question, actually. Vuzix is a survivor, and we have always focused on the vertical markets where we felt that there was business opportunities. When I restarted Vuzix as Vuzix in 1997 effectively, we focused on the different space. We were a supplier to DARP. We sold night vision, gunfight engines, the backend like the viewfinder portion of the near-eye display portion of a thermal weapon sight. We sold hundreds of thousands of those to companies like TRS and Raytheon.

You kind of get the theme here. We focused on areas of the business where we could generate enough cash flow to stay in business. In 2004, we came out with our first consumer wearable display products again, and they were designed to work with products like the iPad. At the time the iPad could play videos, but it only had a little postage stamp screen on it. You could plug our glasses into it and get a reasonably large screen, portable, wearable device.

We probably sold, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of those kinds of devices over the years. Maybe 2 years ago, 3+ years ago, the technology we felt was getting good enough that it could be shrunk down where not just the display, but you could put computer, everything, on the glasses and wear them. The problem is, we didn’t think we could make stuff look good enough to be mass market product.

We were convinced that the mass market … I’m not saying for virtual reality. If you’re in your living room, it’s a completely different proposition, but if you’re going to walk down the street wearing something like a Google glass, if you don’t look cool, if you don’t look like you’re wearing Oakley’s, if you look like you’re wearing technology it’s a problem.

We focused first on this first next generation device that had computers and everything built into an enterprise space, because we felt there would be a market there. It doesn’t really matter what you look like, you’re already wearing safety helmets and gloves and all the stuff that you might find in an enterprise environment. We focused there and we didn’t really have any competition.

Google made Google glass for the consumer market place, and Google glass, when you put it in an enterprise environment where it needs to have auto-focus cameras and it needs to be able to run for 8 to 12-hour shifts, and it just wasn’t able to hold up very well. The M100, our first product, did very well in that space. Over the last couple of years, our enterprise base solutions that we’ve built don’t face that much competition. There’s the Seiko-Epson of the world and their bigger devices. They’re difficult to use for a full 8-hour shift. They block your peripheral vision. We built a product that can work as an artificial assistant agent to help people at enterprise that really is unique. Because of that, I think Vuzix has been able to be successful in the enterprise space. We have a line of those products coming.

We’ve also been in the entertainment. We’ve had products in development for the virtual reality space. We had a product for the eye wear, the video head phones. They don’t have this massive and massive field of view, but they have HDMI inputs that are standard inputs. What that means is that you can plug them into almost anything, an Xbox, a play station, a PC, your iPhone. When you wear the thing you’re getting this 125 inch screen from about 10 feet away. It also has tracking sensors in them so that you can look around and interact with data.

Although it’s not the classic virtual reality device, it has a market place in that it plugs and plays its legacy and can do all those passed up. Believe or not, when you’re looking at the resolution when you look in our eye wear versus an Oculus, it’s higher, it’s 4 times the pixel density, so when you’re looking at data or looking at HD movies, it looks really good. Again, it has its own unique play which is why the eye wear saw some success in the consumer market place. It’s interesting to know … I hope you don’t mind me just jumping through this, Yuval.

Yuval: Go ahead.

Paul: The entire wearable display market place, I believe, is going to change the world. You’re going to have these devices used in almost every part of life. There’s two mainstay markets that gets represented here. One of them is the VR market place, and the other one is the AR augmented reality market place. You put those 2 together, they estimate by 2020 it’s a $150 billion industry.

The interesting thing is about $130 billion of it is going to be with augmented reality. Augmented reality means that you can see the real world and you can augment the information that’s in it. For that to happen and be useful in the enterprise space, you can get away with a lot. We have many products that we had planned and some of that are coming out this year in that space.

In the consumer space, you’ve got to look like you’re wearing Oakley sunglasses. In fact, the reason why we have as much technology as we have related to that at Vuzix is, when we were working for the US government with DARPA  and those guys, they came to us asked if we could make Oakley sunglasses with displays and on them.

We think when you finally solve that problem, the mass market will open up and that $150 Billion business will be at hand for people who can do that well. That’s where Vuzix sees the future of our consumer side of the business, in that space.

Today, at enterprise, we offer solutions that are not at all like what people thought where our low computing was going to be. You don’t put these things on and run spreadsheet or look at schematics. You put the glasses on, there’s a computer sitting in the glasses, it’s looking at a camera that looks at the real world, it pulls that information in, and presents it to you on the little display like you’re holding your phone out in front of you, information to help you get your job done.

It’s completely different then the wearable computing where people thought it was going to be. In fact, some of the early things that we’ve seen where people doing spreadsheet work and word processing on a SVGA display that blocked their view in the one eye, and that just doesn’t make any sense. Enterprise business is being successful because we’re offering solutions that are light weight, can be used all day long, and may solve a problem that people didn’t even know existed. Many of them.

From streaming video for remote help services to picking parts at a warehouses, we don’t always in all those the cases. It’s not about spreadsheets. It’s not about classic thoughts of wearable computing. It’s about using the computer system as the tool to help somebody get their job done.

Yuval: Let’s jump into some technical numbers because one of the things coming out of the virtual reality market is that people think that wider field view is always better. They look at an OSVR headset or they look at an Oculus and say, “Oh, great. I have 100 degrees field of view, maybe I can get 110,” but then in augmented reality, do you feel it’s the same? What, in your mind, is the ideal specification for VR and more importantly for an AR headset?

Paul: There’s going to be many solutions in the set. At some point, it would be so cool to put a pair of glasses on, augmented reality glasses that look like sunglasses, that gave you the ability to virtualize everything in front of you. The virtual field the view on something like that 100+ degree field of view. Today, there are so many applications that just don’t need that.

If you think about the heads-up display on a car that’s probably got a 10 degree field of view but it is super powerful. You don’t have to look down on your dashboard anymore. You get how fast you’re going, directions to turn. In all of that, in a focal distance that’s floating down the road in front of you to make it so much safer than looking down at the dashboard of your car.

If you think about the first kind of functionality you might have in an augmented reality smart watch replacement, where you’re getting directional information that’s functional where you’re looking and that sort of stuff. To start with, you don’t need to have these massive fields to view. In my opinion, until you can solve the issues associated with tracking the real world, and the latency down so that the virtual information is bolted into the real world information without lag and sloshing around. Smaller fields of view are going to be more than acceptable.

The M3000 that we’re coming out with does augmented reality and enterprise. It can help you lay pipes in a field, can help you pick parts out of a warehouse, and it just needs basic augmentation of the real world, and it has a smaller field view. Ultimately though, in the AR space, I’m a big believer in … We’re going to put stuff in the real world that’s not there and people are going to just love it. That requires the larger fields of view systems, and Vuzix is working on those too as you might imagine.

I think the same thing holds true with “virtual reality”. A wearable headset can be used to give you this amazing virtual reality environment, but you don’t need that for everything. When you’re flying a drone by way of example, and you’re teleporting to the camera set that’s sitting on the drone, that massive field of view is not representative of what you’re seeing sitting on the drone. You need something that matches the field of view of the drone cameras, or everything’s distorted.

In that case, I might add, you’re also want to be able to have one foot in the real world to be able to move down the controllers and see the real world. A field of view that’s in the 60 degrees field of you kind of numbers what’s really well. Many people that want to watch IMAX movies or HD movies, if you plan a HD movie on a VR gear by way of example, the left eye’s got left eye information, the right eye’s got right eye and you can’t even see it.

What you do is, you put it through some of these applications that are out there, and you put it up on a screen that is much smaller in the virtual reality space. It’s probably got 640 pixels worth of resolution that represent this HD movie, so you’re looking at something in super low res you’d be much better off wearing a headset that had 5 times the pixel density. You put the movie on in and it’s flowing entirely and it looks beautiful, so it depends on what you’re trying to do. I will admit though, if you want to step in the virtual space and look around as if you’d stepped into the hollow deck, the larger fields of view are more important.

Yuval: If I remember correctly, your enterprise products are most monocular, is that because of cost reasons or do we really don’t need binocular AR for the enterprise?

Paul: I think there’ll come a time when binocular systems are great for the enterprise space, but you can do a boatload with a super like monocular product. It keeps your vision clear all the way round for the most part. If you’re using our waveguide-based solutions, it’s clear in your direct view like it’s not included anywhere. Many applications just don’t need information in both eyes.

It’s like the speedometer on your car kind of a thing. One eye is more than enough. When you’re picking out of a warehouse, you’re replacing a barcode scanner. To replace a barcode scanner you don’t need binocular vision systems. Now, I will admit you can replace pick to light systems, and with a binocular pair of glasses it may be a better solution. On the other hand, with a monocular solution you’re going to be able to do the bulk of what you’d like to do there too.

In today’s form factors, comfort is critical to working 8-hour day, and great big bulky binocular systems, Vuzix just doesn’t believe working enterprise, you get a lot of real time feedback from customers when they say, “2 hours in I got to take it off.” That doesn’t take you through your work day. The monocular systems are lighter weight, they’re less occlusion. They get the job done, they work well. Ultimately, you’ll see binocular systems from Vuzix too, as though … As our profile gets thinner and trimmer.

Yuval: You mentioned waveguide. I think that for augmented reality we’ve seen all kinds of solutions. Micro displays that get through optics imaged into the eye, projection base systems. We also saw solutions where essentially we have cellphone screen that’s parallel to ground, and then some large reflective optics in front of you. I would guess that with all these years of VR and AR experience you’ve built quite an expertise on optics. Could you give us what you think that works and doesn’t work in terms of optics?

Paul: We’ve built beamsplitter-based optical see-through systems similar to like an ODG device. We’ve built really bulky prismatic based solutions in the past. If you just look at the history of see-through display systems, most of the stuff that’s out there is fairly large. How do you get to the point to where you can make sunglasses, because that’s the goal for Vuzix?

We have these waveguides that we developed, and with it, it allows us to do 2 things. 1) We can shrink the display that drives the waveguides into a very small thing, tiny, tiny. Competing waveguide solutions require a fairly large display and a very large input pupil into the waveguide itself, which means when you look at them if you have a 30 or 40 degree field of view in a resulting image that you’re looking at, you end up with a giant thing sitting in your temples that injects the way into the waveguide.

What Vuzix’s optic allows us to do, is shrink that giant thing into something the size of a pencil. Then with our pupil expanding capabilities and the waveguide, it takes that pencil and expands it into a window that you look into that supports the large field of view that the pencil generates. If both of those things, the 1.4 milometers in waveguide in the pupil expansion, it allows you to get form factors that I don’t think many companies can support today, and in full color.

That’s been our focus. We’ve been trying to get these waveguides to a point to where they can produce really nice images and really nice form factors. We were showing our waveguides behind doors at CES. We had models of our Next Generation products that are coming at Mobile World Congress. I think we’re going to be showing M3000, maybe not to everybody but it is up and operational, it’s really cool using the waveguides and the small engine. Before the end of this year, we should be having products coming from Vuzix that’s sports these waveguides.

Yuval: Wonderful. Speaking of again enterprise and consumer, how have you seen requirements change over the years. Were the requirements constant and now technology has simply caught up or do you think that requirements have sort of changed?

Paul: I don’t think anybody knew. In the defense space, it was a clear replacement for a laptop. They needed a remote display that you could effectively turn the laptop’s display screen off and use the remote display. Then they had all these robots and stuff with cameras on them, so they needed a way to connect to the eye what the camera was seeing on the robot. Those were used cases that were very well defined.

In the enterprise space, people were trying to figure out, “What am I going to do with wearable computing system?” At the time, the earlier days, wearable computing was about looking at schematics or drawings to fix your car or … It completely evolved from that, and I’ve got to give Google a lot of credit here. They came out with Google glass and the idea of having the camera sitting there. It wasn’t there for what they thought it was going to be there for at the time, but the camera sitting there, the computer on the side, suddenly it opened up people’s minds to other possibilities.

Over the last 3 years, product concepts, solution concepts, had evolved based upon that configuration. It’s unique. It’s that there’s a computer in the display. It’s that there’s a computer that has a display, it’s wirelessly connected to a network with Cloud information, and there’s a camera that’s looking into the real world, and you can today tie all that together. When you can take Cloud information, put it in the real world and close the loop, and have it connected through a wearable computing device like what we make today, you can do so many things that nobody even thought of.

In the earlier days of wearable computing, there wasn’t even a camera involved in this stuff, let alone the ability to do all of this stuff, nor the connectivity. It’s evolved, and in the last 3 years, it’s evolved significantly. You can do so many things now. I talk about this … When I first left Eastman Kodak the first computer I bought had a 10 megabyte hard drive. The thing was giant thing that sat on my desk. And our M100 got 32 gigabytes and you can mount it on your ear. Pretty amazing the way technology has changed, and with it all configured the right way, you can do things that never could be done before.

Yuval: I think that on the consumer side, if I remember correctly, historically you had offered all these extensions or ways to run existing games with your consumer headsets, and now you seem to be relying more on frameworks like OSVR to take care of that. Have you seen that change well?

Paul: For our current eyewear as a way of example, we still do offer that legacy support because it’s going to take quite great to take Flight Simulator X down off the shelf, plug it in and sit in the cockpit and it’s an uncanny experience frankly. However, it’s even better to get new software. Some companies are writing directly to Vuzix platform, but the OSVR drivers make for a lot of commonality and easy connectivity.

Yes, we really are big believers in our OSVR. We have OSVR drivers completed now. Within the next week or two on our website there’s a big section that’s getting opened up on all the compatibility that’s coming and OSVR is a big piece of that. The OSVR component of it is enabling an ecosystem that it seems like a lot of the development community likes. Game developing companies love the idea of having more than one headset. If they come out with their software and it just runs, it opens up a market for them too, so I think it’s a win-win.

Yuval: Perfect. Last question, not to take too much of your time, Paul. How do you see VR progressing or developing in the next year or two.

Paul: I think companies like Oculus are finally going to start shipping the HTC Vive, fantastic product by the way. I really think they’ve done a great job. It’s probably going to be more expensive, they’ll start shipping. I think you’ll see content starting to come along. I hope it doesn’t become like the Kinect from Xbox. As long as the content keeps coming and the excitement stays, I believe that virtual reality is going to have a fabulous future.

I think you can do more things with it than you can with Kinect, but there’s a lot of hype right now. That’s just an exciting time to be here, and there’s no doubt about the fact that when you play with an OSVR headset or an HTC Vive or Vuzix’s products, you can do things that you just can’t do any other way. There’s the market for it in the past and they’re really beginning to develop now.

I see that you’ll see maturity happening there. You’ll see higher res versions of these things coming. I think you’re going to see a work of migration mixing with the VR concept with the real world, and either mixed reality, headsets or augmented reality solutions which is where I think that the bigger opportunity will come from.

Yuval: Excellent. I’m sure that I could go on for another hour or two asking you questions about your perspective, but I think we’ll leave it at that for this time. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Paul: You’re welcome, Yuval. Thank you. Appreciated the time.

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